The perfect bookshelf

What is the best bookshelf you’ve ever seen?

Odds are, you haven’t seen anything other than the ‘default’ – rows (and more recently columns) of books that are arranged next to one another, spine facing back, usually sorted by genre and then by author.

Or if you’re lazy – or sophisticated or shady, depending on what books you own – you may just keep them flat out. Like this:

If you’re an Ikea-lover, you’ve probably seen (and desired) the Billy bookshelf, which is dramatically different in that it offers column partitions in addition to rows. Wow. (not)

The fact of the matter is that bookshelves don’t seem to have evolved from their ancient stereotypes.

A few days back, I was wondering, pondering, what might be a better way of arranging books. Eschewing novelty for novelty’s sake – for example the oddly-shaped rows and columns and even a circular bookshelf – I asked myself how I would design the ‘optimum’ bookshelf.

Optimum for what? – you may ask. What purpose, after all, must a bookshelf serve, except to hold books?

Oh thou of little imagination! Have you fed yourself fat and flatulent on books all of these years, that you would treat books as purely utilitarian creatures? Surely not! Then why bookshelves?

An optimum bookshelf, in my opinion, should do to the brain as much as a book does. Therefore, its qualities:

Evocative. From the root ‘evoke’, which means conjure up images, sounds and scents of other places and other times. It is the least that we expect from a book, and therefore from bookshelves too. Let us plant bonsai amongst our crop of books on “How to learn Japanese”, let us intersperse our cookbooks with hangings of red chili, and let us bookend Agatha Christie between a dagger and a bottle of poison.

Idiosyncratic. Blasphemous even to put a book as crooked as Julio Cortezar’s “Hopscotch” into a straight and narrow bookshelf. Searching for Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum should be as desultory (and ultimately fruitless) as the book itself. Should you have to juggle a hidden lever, or tap three spots on the side of the bookcase for the enclave containing Treasure Island to open up and reveal itself?

Stimulating to the senses. If Nabokov and Joyce and Perec can arrange words into non sequitirs and jumbles that still retain meaning – madman meaning – why should we not do the same to books? Here is an example, a woman who arranges books:

(Obviously a book-lover. See her Fictitious Dishes photo series: http://www.dinahfried.com/fictitious-dishes/)

Multi-dimensional. Have you had the experience of reading Vikram Seth’s Golden Gate and immediately be possessed of the desire to read another San Francisco book, haphazardly (through an ingenious combination of asking friends and asking Google) settling upon Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”)? In Pratchett’s Discworld, books live in their own dimension – the L-space – managed by an orangutan. My perfect bookshelf would not subject this L-space to the indignity of converting it to a List-space by stripping out everything non-linear in it. Perhaps you will wander into my book room (not my book shelf!) and, looking beside Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, find Zen in the Art of Archery (both Zen), next to which you find Ashok Banker’s Ramayana series (both Archery) and a book from A C Clarke (both Rama).

Discovery. How many times do the best among our books, our champions, our favorites, turn up from books that appear incredibly dull and incongruous at first glance. How much the thrill of finding pleasure where it is unexpected! Yet, arranging books by Author deliberately stalks, kills and destroys any sense of book-hunting adventure. How many acts of serendipity take place in a large college library? – none, in my opinion. You see the Chemists hanging by the Chemistry books, the Physicians hanging by the Physics books, and the routes more-often taken are so well-laid-out that no one stumbles onto a treasure.

If I had to arrange a large and eclectic collection of books, I would follow the example of Charles Dancey, who wrote my favorite activity book, The Encyclopedia of Ball Juggling. As a book to teach an absolutely naked beginner how to juggle, it is unparalleled. And yet, it eschews the typical manner of teaching juggling – first throw one ball, then throw two balls, then throw three balls – a manner which, in truth, keeps 90% of readers safely ensconced in the first chapter that they do not progress beyond – eschews it in favor of arranging its topics alphabetically. Masterstroke! So to reach ‘Three Ball Juggling’, you must flip through everything from ‘History of Juggling’ to ‘Juggling with Eggs’, ‘Records and how to break them’ and ‘State machine diagrams for modeling juggling patterns’. The encyclopedia (in imitation of many others) even starts with an entry for ‘Aardvark’, and ends with ‘Zen’. How thrilling, then, to “browse” through this book, stumbling upon nuggets while searching for the ordinary! A discovery in every page!

As he with his entries, so with my books. I would break up my set of Buddha comics, put Volume 1 (“Kapilavastu”) in between “Kamasutra” and “Kenya” (the latter a Lonely Planet publication), and Volume 2 (“The Four Encounters”) in between “Foundation” and “Fowler’s Modern English Usage”. Searching for one volume after another, the users of my bookshelf would let themselves be seduced by interesting titles that catch their eye, and discover my books, not as series and lines, but as tangles in chaos, twisted tributes to the order in which I collect and read them, and have epiphanies they could never dream of in the British Council.

(One thing for certain: when I build my dream home, 60% of the budget will be spent on the library.)

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